Tripoli on the Potomac: U.S. Tripoli embassy sets up shop at State

Laura Rozen

Libya's former envoy to Washington has been at the State Department the past several days, and diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli have "set up shop" in the State Department's Near East bureau. From their new base, the diplomats are helping U.S. government efforts to understand the Libyan opposition and its leadership structure, according to a diplomat who attended a briefing at the State Department this week.

U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz briefed foreign diplomats about the Libyan crisis and what he's learned about the Libyan opposition at the State Department this week.

"The whole Tripoli embassy has set up office at NEA," one attendee at the briefing said, referring to the State Department Near East bureau. "They are working the phones for the past several days at State" to get a sense of who are the Libyan opposition and what is their leadership structure.

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon referred to Washington's efforts to learn more about the Libyan opposition--chiefly who its members are, and what they want--in a phone call with journalists Thursday.

"We are in contact with [Libyan] opposition groups," Donilon said. "There is real sensitivity [about western role in Libya]. These are indigenous groups. The people of Libya against all predictions a month ago have control of about half the country in Libya. It's absolutely important to recognize the indigenous nature of the efforts and . . . the concerns expressed by Libyans and others in the region about [possible western] military steps on the ground.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with Libyan opposition members when she travels to Paris, Egypt and Tunisia next week, Donilon also said.

Libya's former ambassador to Washington Ali Suleiman Aujali, who has denounced Gadhafi, met with Clinton at the State Department Thursday and with Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeff Feltman Friday, a State Department official said.

President Barack Obama said Friday that the United States would soon name an envoy to the Libyan opposition.

Ambassador Cretz--whose cable describing Gadhafi's "voluptuous" Ukrainian nurse, released by WikiLeaks, reportedly caused considerable strain between the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and the Gadhafi regime --has led initial State Department efforts to learn more about the Libyan opposition. Cretz has traveled of late to Cairo and Rome to meet with the Libyan transition council, according to a diplomat who attended his briefing and asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

Regarding the Libyan opposition, Cretz "emphasized numerous times that there's been no space for civil society in Libya for decades so we can't expect too much," the diplomat said.

"But he said they seemed genuinely interested in doing [transition from Gadhafi rule] in the right way, keeping Islamist elements out of the council, to try to have gender and ethnic balance, and to make room in the council for Libyans from the western part of the country," which is still in Gadhafi's grip, the diplomat said Cretz relayed.

Separately, the United States announced new sanctions Friday against Gadhafi's wife, several of his children and government officials.

Also on Friday the European Union called for Gadhafi  to step down immediately, and said it no longer considered Gadhafi the legitimate representative of Libya. However, EU officials did not go as far as the body's member nation France, which Thursday recognized Libya's opposition National Council as the country's legitimate representative.

The Arab League is scheduled to discuss Libya at a meeting in Cairo on  Saturday.

(Anti-Qadhafi protesters at the court square, in Benghazi, eastern Libya, on Friday. AP photo.)